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Asking the Right Questions About Egypt

American planes fly over the pyramids

There seems to be some uncertainty amongst many Americans about how to regard the Egyptian revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood and this week's overthrow of Mohamed Morsi – or what The New York Times refers to as “the military ouster of the country's first freely elected president”. Not a few are thinking aloud, “If Morsi was elected, within a democratic process, isn't the overthrow of their Executive an attack on the nascent democratic system?”

For people who consider themselves progressive – wary of relentless United States rhetoric around “bringing democracy to the Middle East” and “fighting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism” as a cover for its incursions into Muslim countries – it's only natural that the toppling of a newly-appointed Middle Eastern leader would raise red flags. Especially when the dominant media narrative leads one to interpret the latest uprising in Egypt as less of a fight for democracy, than a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

I suspect that at least some of the confusion regarding the recent uprising in Egypt derives from legitimate defensiveness surrounding the discussion of Islam in the American context. It's partly a compassionate reaction to the ongoing racist surveillance of Muslims in America, and the Occupation of several predominantly Muslim countries by our own. But however well-intentioned this train of thought may be, it betrays an incredible lack of respect for the agency of Middle Easterners and Turks pushing back against Islamism.

The backlash against Islam in the United States and Europe is nothing like the uprising against Islamist political parties in Turkey and Egypt. 

This is more like a revolt against the Christian Right takeover of everyday politics in America (something we as a country thought we could do merely by electing a Dem). These are (mostly) Muslims critiquing Muslims - reacting against the Muslim Brotherhood, above all for its failure to address the severe economic impacts of Mubarak's neoliberal policies (ushered in under US and IMF pressure).

We should ask why, as Khaled Shalaan writes in Jadaliyya, “Western audiences are not being allowed to sympathize with the demonstrations in Egypt demanding Morsi's ouster the way that they did with protests against former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.” (As The New York Times' phrasing above, suggests).

It is not madness to consider the ways that the United States, its European allies, and Israel might stand to benefit from collaboration between the MB and the Egyptian military – so long as the Egyptian military continues to rely on United States military aid. In fact, our government has been meeting with the MB since the mid 2000s, if not the early 1990s. Britain funded the MB and cemented its access to the Egyptian establishment, from the first days of independence from British rule. (Similarly, Israel armed the military wings of the Palestinian Islamist movement from their earliest inception, against the secular PLO. And the Taliban would never have taken power without continual financing and “intelligence” from the United States.) In other words, various Islamist movements have a long and deep history of collaboration with their enemies, from their very outset.

Indeed this seems to have been the case during the rise of the MB in recent years as well. It has come to light that, before the election was called, the MB met secretly with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Appeals for recounts by apparently defeated candidates were so rampant at the time, that announcement of the official tally was significantly delayed. As Wael Eskandar explains in Jadaliyya, this bought the MB time to bargain with the military.

When Morsi took power, not only did he fail to dismantle Mubarak's policing/torture apparatus, he suppressed popular challenges to the military (the same military that brutally repressed the MB under the Mubarak regime). In early 2012, when revolutionaries called for a transfer of power from the military to what was considered the only democratically elected body in the country (the People's Assembly), Morsi severely undermined their efforts. This despite the fact that the MB held the largest bloc in the newly elected People's Assembly. As Khalil Al-Anani documented in 2012, Morsi instantly began “brokering the future of the country behind the scenes,” working with the military's draft of a constitution and signing it without any public input.

Unfortunately, because the constitution promoted by the SCAF and Morsi had no recall provision, popular uprising and/or a coup represented the only available avenues for removing the president. In a matter of days, almost 1/3 of Egyptians made clear that they wanted Morsi gone, and in the absence of any true constitution with recall provisions, that certainly seems to be about the same as a recall

A clean election

Are you aware of the doubts concerning Morsi's win? In his capacity as head of the Carter Center's election monitoring program, former President Carter observed, "When I met with military leaders, my impression was they want to have some special privilege in the government after the president is elected.” And each time the mainstream press refers to Morsi as “the country's first freely elected president”, it erases any memory of well-documented election irregularities.

To bring it all a little closer to home, consider this little Occupy Wall Street-related anecdote:

Two months into the occupation of Liberty Square, a woman claiming to be one of the key organizers at Occupy DC approached the NYC General Assembly with one of the leaders of the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt (Asmaa Mahfouz), requesting that the NYC General Assembly send election observers to Egypt. Soon the Movement Building Working Group began the process of “selecting” a few “qualified” individuals to travel abroad. But within days, Comrades from Cairo reached out across the ocean, appealing to Occupy Wall Street:

“This new Egyptian parliament will have effectively no powers whatsoever, and—as many of us see it—its election is just a means of legitimating the ruling junta’s seizure of the revolutionary process. Is this something you wish to monitor?”

Soon it was discovered that the supposed Occupy DC leader had in fact worked with neo-conservative, fully State Department-funded groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Freedom House. We asked around at Occupy DC, a small and closed core group, and discovered that she was completely unknown to any of its organizers. After a few relentless weeks in the Occupy Wall Street scene, she promptly disappeared, as did her LinkedIn profile. Then we came to understand that the April 6th Youth Movement had received training and other forms of significant support from the NED and Freedom House as well.

You've got to wonder why a neo-conservative group fully-funded by the State Department, would want a small cadre of Occupy Wall Street activists to act as election observers in Egypt. What some thought was a call from our allies in Egypt, truly appears to have been an American-based attempt at cooptation.

In the midst of our call for an end to the conflation of democratic and capitalist institutions, the collusion of corrupt politicians and corporate criminals, our participation in the monitoring process would have provided legitimacy to what in some ways may well have been a sham election, undermining the Egyptian people's call for true democracy.

How about some agency?

So to the question, “Is it a good thing that Morsi has been deposed through a popular uprising, even if it was supported by a junta that should be next?” the answer is yes. But that is not at all the correct question to ask. A better question is: 

Now that a popular uprising has resulted in Morsi's downfall, will the Egyptian people, whether they are against or for the Muslim Brotherhood, work to replace military rule with the rule of the people? Because the removal of the MB, in the absence of the upending of the military as well, will mean - no democracy.

Why is it so important that we ask the right question? Given the degree to which the Egyptian military does the bidding of the US government, a portion of the answer relies upon us, exercising our agency the way that the Egyptian people have. If there's an affirmative answer to the question, "Will the Egyptian people manage to bring down the military as a first step towards true democracy?" in various ways it involves the American people fighting for true democracy here in the United States as well.

(For an more in-depth and current analysis, see, "Letting Go of Revolutionary Purity", published on Jadaliyya in January, 2014.)

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